With Alfian Sa-at’s and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s HOTEL (2015) about to open here in Adelaide as part of the Oz-Asia Festival I thought it opportune to write something about Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s best modern playwrights. Most people in Australia may not be aware of Alfian Sa’at and his work. This is an attempt to slightly address that. He is an exceptional playwright, poet, and from my all to brief dealings with him, a really great guy as well. I first became aware of Alfian Sa’at’s work whilst I was living in Singapore. During that time I was fortunate enough to see a number of his plays being performed by Singapore’s terrific Wild Rice theatre company, led by another exceptional person, Ivan Heng, the Artistic Director and co-founder of Wild Rice. The productions I saw included Dreamplay (2000), which is Part One of Alfian Sa’at’s beautiful Asian Boys Trilogy (2000-07), Cooling Off Day (2011), Cook a Pot of Curry (2013), and my personal favourite, the intriguing The Optic Trilogy (2001). All these are terrific plays and make an excellent introduction to the world of Alfian Sa’at.
Alfian Sa’at was born in Singapore in 1977 and attended Raffles Junior College where his passion for theatre was first revealed. His tremendous creative spirit led to the publication of his first collection of poetry One Fierce Hour in 1998. This was a instant success with The Malaysian New Strait Times praising and calling him a ‘prankish provocateur’ and ‘libertarian hipster’. What followed was a steady outflow of excellent work – a collection of short stories called Corridor (1999), many of which have been adapted for television, and his second collection of poetry A History of Amnesia (2001). All these are available and are excellent reads; personal favourite being Corridor.
It was partly due to this work, and subsequent others, that Alfian Sa’at earned the moniker of being Singapore’s enfant terrible. He is a ‘provocateur’. This rebellious stance is also evident in his many plays, which are often acute observations of contemporary life in Singapore, combined with a deep knowledge and appreciation of Singapore’s history, as well as World Theatre in general, and a delicious and mischievous wit.
The Asian Boys Trilogy is something that could be seen during Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and/or Adelaide’s Feast Festival. This is a terrific ‘gay’ play that is not only enlightening about ‘gay’ life in South-East Asia, past and present, but is also very entertaining. I have only seen Part One – Dreamplay, which is theatrically influenced by Strindberg’s Dreamplay, and was directed by Ivan Heng and featured the wonderful Singapore actor and dear friend Galeb Goh, amongst other excellent Singapore actors.
One sequence in Alfian Sa’at’s Dreamplay that I found particularly fascinating and gripping involved a relationship between a young Chinese-Singaporean and a Japanese officer during the horrendous Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW2. To be frank, Australians know virtually nothing about this tragic chapter of Singapore’s history, and yet we are intrinsically involved, not just because of the horrors of Changi Prison, but much much more, which time and space does not allow me to enter into here.
Cooling Off Day (2011) was actually the first Alfian Sa’at play I saw. It is a series of monologues based around the then recent Singapore General Election. I didn’t know much about the politics of Singapore so this was a terrific introduction. Whilst some of it went way over my head and was very local specific, nonetheless, it was extremely entertaining and enlightening. I loved the structure of the piece, a snap-shot of Singapore at a particular and politically important moment in time, the different voices and perspectives, a cross section of Singaporean characters and society, and the vital and engaging performances by the respective actors. It was also through this play and production that I became aware of the delights of Singlish.
Singlish is the English based patois or slang that is spoken in Singapore. When I was there Singlish was often denigrated as not being ‘proper English’ by those in the so-called social and academic elite, who can be ruthlessly and dully conservative. I loved it! When queried I would be mischievously provocative with these borish snobs, stating that I thought Shakespeare would have loved it too. Shakespeare was a words-smith and you only have to be familiar with his plays, as well as his contemporaries, to see how much he incorporated colloquial English (and others) slang into his works.
I tried many times to speak Singlish, much to the amusement of my Singapore friends. I even had a couple of Singlish dictionaries, and would fervently implore my Singapore students and friends to speak Singlish as I just loved hearing it. Unfortunately, I never got the hang of it – lah. Friends would just giggle at my attempts, my problem centring on differences in stress. Australians follow our English-speaking heritage with an iambic word/vowel stress (Dee-DUM), weak-strong; Singaporeans follow their English-speaking heritage with a trochaic word/vowel stress (DUM-Dee), strong-weak. I couldn’t break my Australian cultural habit. Instead of saying the common ‘CAN lah’, I would say ‘Can LAH’, which generally produced shrieks of laughter. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware that whenever Singlish was spoken in the theatre, as in Alfian’s plays, it was like an electric current suddenly shot through the audience, making them excited and animated – it was fantastic! This was most apparent in Alfian Sa’at’s delightful domestic comedy Cook a Pot of Curry – I didn’t understand half of it, but it didn’t matter, I just enjoyed the vitality of the show, and the joy of the Singapore audience as it would roar with laughter at recognition of themselves and their unique colloquial language. I am sure Hotel will have some Singlish in it – can’t wait to hear it again.
As previously mentioned, my favourite amongst Alfian’s plays is The Optic Trilogy. This is a two-hander between an unnamed man and woman in three separate scenes. I remember this Wild Rice production clearly, which featured dear friend and colleague the wonderful Brendon Fernandez, and how from the very first scene set in a hotel room I was absolutely transfixed – by the drama, the complexity, the language, and the brilliant performances. This is a play about deceit, full of poetic metaphors, and is often very funny. It has been performed in a number of other countries, but not, as yet, in Australia. This is the play that I would love to do in Australia. I can only encourage you to get hold of it, as it is published, and read it. But please – let me do it! Haha!.
Hopefully this brief little introduction to some of the works of Alfian Sa’at will encourage you to find out more about this terrific Singapore playwright and poet. It is well worth the effort. Also – if you haven’t as yet booked your tickets for Hotel here in Adelaide then please do so immediately – now! From all reports it is simply marvelous – both parts. I know that if you do you will not be disappointed and discover the joy of Alfian Sa’at, as well as Wild Rice.